Card Sharks

The St. Louis Cardinals want your money for their $370 million ballpark. But before the game begins, somebody needs to reshuffle the deck.

 A new stadium for the St. Louis Cardinals sounds like a good deal for everyone. Just listen to the baseball team's owners:

There would be no new taxes. The team would contribute $120 million of the estimated $370 million cost. The $250 million balance would be covered by taxes generated at the new ballpark, to be located just south of Busch Stadium on 8 acres the team now owns. The owners, who call taxes at the stadium "user fees," say the stadium would more than pay for itself. Even the math on seating sounds too good to be true. In a ballpark with 47,900 seats -- 1,872 fewer than at Busch -- there would be more inexpensive seats and more premium seats for which the team could charge upwards of $100.

But wait -- there's more. A new stadium would revitalize downtown, luring new residential and commercial development. From the rubble of a demolished Busch would rise a vibrant urban district the team has dubbed Ballpark Village. A la Wrigley Field, there'd be spectators on the roofs of surrounding apartment buildings and condominiums. And they'd be watching a winner, because the revenue from a new ballpark would ensure that the team could afford players who would keep the Cardinals in World Series contention for the next 30 years. If you didn't want to celebrate the latest victory in a Ballpark Village pub, you could speed back to the suburbs (93 percent of the fans at Busch live outside the city) on MetroLink, which the team proposes moving to the front door of the new stadium.

Cardinals president Mark Lamping: "I guess if every time there's going to be public dollars involved in any project that we're going to put it forth for the people to vote on it, then why do we need legislators?"
Jennifer Silverberg
Cardinals president Mark Lamping: "I guess if every time there's going to be public dollars involved in any project that we're going to put it forth for the people to vote on it, then why do we need legislators?"

Why stop at 30 years, the length of the proposed lease the team would sign in exchange for public financing? Our great-great-grandchildren will enjoy the fruits of a new stadium deal under the everybody-wins scenario painted by the team. "The commitment that ownership has is, they are committed to having a stable, consistently competitive winning team in this marketplace for at least another 100 years," gushed 42-year-old team president Mark Lamping at an April 8 press conference. "The key to that is your facility."

Without a new facility, the owners like to paint the team's prospects in shades of doom and gloom. They haven't explicitly threatened to move the team outside downtown, but they warn that tax revenues, which have steadily increased at Busch for the past five years, will decline if the team doesn't get a new stadium, which could cost $690 million, once interest costs are taken into account. According to the team, tax revenues generated at Busch have jumped from $6.1 million in 1995 to a projected $15.3 million this season. "You can't assume that same tax growth if we continue to stay in this facility," Lamping says. "Thirty years from now, you're not going to get that amount of money, because you're going to have an aging facility. Fans aren't going to want to come here." Taxes aren't the only issue. Without a new stadium and the increased profits it would bring, the owners say, the Cardinals will become perennial losers because they won't be able to afford the best available players.

There are a few things the owners would rather not talk about: They don't like to talk about the astoundingly low price they paid for the team or how much it has appreciated in value since the 1996 purchase. They don't like to talk about the $15.3 million in current taxes the city and state could lose in order to pay for the new stadium. They don't like to talk about other cities where stadiums have been built with private money. In San Francisco, for example, the Giants found a way to pay for a $343 million stadium without public help. Pepsi Center, home to the Denver Nuggets and Avalanche, didn't cost taxpayers a dime. Nor did Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the Lakers and Clippers play basketball and the Kings play hockey.

It's a recurring theme with the Cardinals. Nearly every time the team is pressed for details on stadium financing or the club's economic health, club officials sidestep questions or flat-out refuse to answer. They say that questions of tremendous importance for taxpayers shouldn't be answered publicly. They prefer to do their negotiating and outline their financing schemes behind closed doors with elected officials and investment bankers. In essence, the owners are saying, "Trust us, and trust the politicians." It's no wonder, then, that so many people are so skeptical about the team's field of dreams.

At this point, unanswered questions include:

· Why can't the team owners pay for a new stadium themselves? The franchise, purchased at a bargain-basement price, is financially healthy, nearly debt-free and setting all-time attendance records.

· Why has the team proposed a method of financing that could end up costing taxpayers millions more in debt service than if a public vote were held on the stadium issue? And what other revenue sources would the team tap to repay the bond indebtedness?

· Why should the public rely on team projections that show never-ending growth in tax revenue if a new stadium is built? And if those projections prove wrong, would the Cardinals cover any shortfall?

· How would government find the money to pay for a new stadium without leaving holes in other areas of public budgets?

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